Whenever African-American librarians are mentioned, Jean Blackwell Hutson of the Schomburg; Clara Jones of Detroit, the first Black president of the American Library Association; and Dorothy Porter Wesley of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University usually head the list. Each person was an extraordinary bibliophile and undeterred in their pursuit of the most obscure batch of data.

In my years as a writer and teacher, I was fortunate to meet each of them, at least to bother them about a matter or to request their permission to use a particular book or article. I only saw Wesley a couple times, and by then she was nearing retirement in 1973, after a long tenure at the Moorland-Spingarn Center.

The center was her nest, so to speak, and it was largely her tireless devotion that built the center, twig by twig, acquiring a variety of documents, photographs, and scraps of memorabilia about Black history wherever it could be found and was available.

Born Dorothy Burnett, May 25, 1905 in Warrenton, Va., she was raised in Montclair, N.J., in a doctor’s family of four children. She received her B.A. from Howard University in 1928. Three years later, she earned a B.S. degree and in 1934 her M.S. degree in library science from Columbia University, the first Black woman to earn such a distinction.

Her nose wasn’t always buried in some book. She was a very active young girl who loved being a member of the Campfire Girls, pulling on roller or ice skates, swimming and tennis.

She may have derived some of her outgoing spirit and moxie from her parents. Her father was a community activist who ran for several offices, and her mother taught Sunday school at their church, and often after Bible study, she taught Wesley how to play tennis. Wesley, when asked about growing up, told one interviewer that “my father thought my mother should discipline us. And my mother thought my father should discipline us. Sometimes my mother would punish me by sending me to bed. This did not bother me because I always hid books and a bottle of olives under my mattress.”

While completing her graduate work, she worked at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, named after Jesse Moorland, who, with Carter Woodson, was the co-founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. Moorland, like Arthur Schomburg, was a devout collector of books, many of which he donated to Howard as the foundation of the center. He was joined in this enterprise by Arthur Spingarn, the brother of Joel Spingarn, a cornerstone of the NAACP’s early years. An avid book collector, like Moorland, Arthur Spingarn donated a good portion of his collection to the library. And it was Wesley’s assiduous zeal that secured Spingarn’s impressive collection.

When she began working at the center, she discovered stacks of dusty books from Moorland that hadn’t been opened or catalogued. “Nothing had been done in that collection; nothing had been brought together,” she said. That’s when she, affectionately known as the “shopping bag lady,” dove into the boxes and began making the collection the centerpiece of the center.

It was from this wellspring that Wesley began acquiring additional books that would make the center among the most resourceful repositories and archives on Black history in the world. Under her leadership, the center’s holdings grew from an initial 3,000 to 180,000 items by 1973, including letters, manuscripts, pamphlets, books, microfilms and microfiche, as well as oral histories. Along with her responsibilities of running the library, she found time to write several books.

She published “Early Negro Writings, 1760-1837” in 1971. It was republished in 1995 by Black Classic Press under the name Dorothy Porter. Her first husband was James Amos Porter, who chaired Howard’s fine arts department. He died in 1970. Nine years later, she married Dr. Charles H. Wesley, the eminent historian, a dean and professor at Howard. He died in 1987.

Among her other books are “North American Negro Poets: A Bibliographical Checklist” (1945); “Negro Protest Pamphlets” (1969); “The Negro in the United States, A Selected Bibliography” (1970); and “Afro-Braziliana: A Working Bibliography” (1978), one of the most comprehensive listings on the subject.

In 1971, she was the recipient of an honorary doctorate of letters from Susquehanna University. She also received a similar honor in humane letters from Syracuse University in 1989. It was during this period that she was appointed visiting scholar to the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. The University of Utah presented her with the Olaudah Equiano Award of Excellence for Pioneering Achievements in African-American Culture in 1989. This same year, the center instituted an annual lecture series in her name.

Even after retirement, her research continued, and her scholarship and concern for compiling the precious items of Black culture and history were consistent with her dedication to gathering the works of “our painters, musicians, athletes … our background, what they’ve done all goes to make up our history,” she often professed.

For someone who attained such a pinnacle of scholarship, Wesley was a rather late bloomer because she had no classes in African-American history as a student in high school or college. Janet Sims-Woods, in her study of Wesley’s life, cited the work of Richard Newman in his book on Afro-American bibliographies and bibliographers, in which Wesley wrote about her home life and the presence of books: “The poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar was among the books on the bookshelf. His poetry was very familiar as my mother frequently recited his poetry at the Methodist church we attended … Kelly Miller, a famous sociologist whom my father had known while he was a student at Howard University, was on occasion a guest in our home, where some of his books and pamphlets were to be found. I also remember being raised up onto my father’s shoulders to see Booker T. Washington on one of his speaking tours in the area. I believe most Black families such as ours possessed his ‘Up From Slavery’ … My personal copy of ‘Iola Leroy,’ the first novel by a Black woman, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, was among my father’s library.”

Wesley’s life was surrounded by books, and that was the case when she died in December 1995 at 91 at her daughter’s home in Fort Lauderdale.